Hydrophobia Xbox 360 (XBLA)
Published by: Microsoft Game Studios
Developed by: Dark Energy Digital
Set in a rather bleak future with the overpopulated Earth being in the process of global flooding, Hydrophobia is a game that sees Kate Wilson, a security engineer, having to deal with some rather perilous situations. The game is set on a ship which comes under attack from terrorists. It’s thanks to their efforts that you’ll soon see the ship in a complete mess with various people killed and water flooding different sections of the ship. There are passengers to save, terrorists to sort out and above all a lot of water to cope with. As you’ll soon find out, water is both your biggest ally and your worst enemy in Hydrophobia.
Hydrophobia is essentially a third-person action game with some platform game elements and an assortment of puzzles to solve. The combat, which relies on you making the most of the available cover, isn’t a great deal of fun but it’s serviceable. The platforming moments are all respectable but it’s the water which makes Hydrophobia feel unique. You can cause explosions which will in turn cause big waves that will disturb your enemies allowing you an advantage in combat or allowing you to avoid them completely. As the ship begins to flood, you can swim to areas of the ship that were previously inaccessible. In fact the water adds a dynamic to the action that you normally don’t find in an action game.
You’ll want to manipulate the flow of the water as much as you can in order to aid your progress in Hydrophobia but not everything you’ll do in the game involves making the most of the plentiful H2O. There are various kinds of information for you to locate and in order to get your hands on it, you’ll usually have to hack your way past security locks. The hacking puzzles in the game are certainly worth a mention. The basic idea is to match the sound waves frequency and wavelength. You’ll do this by moving the two analogue sticks to make your sound wave match the one shown. It works surprisingly well and is far more imaginative than the hacking puzzles you usually come across in games.
In certain respects Hydrophobia could have been better and more intuitive. Some of the controls are rather strange. It’s an odd decision to map the jump action to the Y button and even after playing the game for several hours I still found myself pressing the A button through instinct. There are too many times when Kate will meet with instant death. If you’re walking across a narrow platform and fall, Kate will simply fall rather than turn around and grab the ledge to give you a chance to redeem yourself. There are plenty of times where Kate will drown with little or no warning (hearing gamers will hear Kate’s rather panicked breathing however). The game could have done with some kind of gauge to warn you how long Kate has before drowning. You will see a reddening of the screen before she finally chokes but it’s almost too late by then. The checkpoints are mostly placed sensibly but some are far from ideal meaning you’ll have to redo various parts of the game multiple times until you succeed. There are times when you’ll be underwater and Kate will need to open a door or deactivate a lock and the water physics will constantly move Kate around making it difficult to position her so that you can press the X button to perform the action. None of these disappointments are serious but they should have been addressed.
Some may regard the brevity of the game as a problem. You’re looking at around four hours (dependant of which of the three difficulty levels you play at of course) from start to finish and that’s not a lot to be fair. However, there are plenty of items to collect so those who like to complete everything will probably want to play through the game a couple of times. Once the game has been completed you’ll have access to the Challenge Room mode which gives you the opportunity to take on wave after wave of terrorists in an attempt to attain a high score on the game’s leaderboard.
Graphically, Hydrophobia doesn’t push the Xbox 360 as hard as it could have done but its quality is actually quite surprising for an XBLA game. The character models are decent but it’s the water-based physics that really catch the eye. With the game set on a ship it would be easy to criticise the various environments for all looking a little too similar. In some respects this would be a fair criticism especially as the similar looking corridors can add to the confusion when you have to swim from one place to another within a specific time limit.
Hydrophobia is subtitled and you’ll be aware of the game’s dialogue allowing you to follow the storyline without any issues. All tutorial messages are shown in text. Kate’s objectives are shown in text and can be recalled at any time. At various times in the game you’ll have a time limit imposed on you and you’re always made aware of this time limit. The game makes good use of force feedback too. I particularly like the way force feedback was used in the hacking puzzles to alert you when you’re close to solving the puzzle. As mentioned earlier, I would have liked a gauge to show how long Kate can take being underwater. Hearing gamers will hear Kate’s rather anxious breathing noises to signify that she can’t hold her breath much longer but there’s nothing visual to denote this.
Dark Energy Digital deserves a lot of praise for their originality. The use of water in Hydrophobia is certainly interesting and it makes for a completely original experience. There’s no getting away from the fact that it’s a short game however and there’s a fair amount of frustration here with the ease with which Kate can come to an unpleasant end. If you aren’t the kind of person to throw down your controller in utter frustration and appreciate action titles that like to do things a little differently, Hydrophobia could well be your kind of game and for the originality and the atmosphere alone it’s certainly worth playing.